Whether Kent or Kampala, girls are struggling with period poverty. It’s time for action
Whether you’re living in Uganda or here in the UK, if you’re a girl, the chances are you’re going to face some sort of stigma or taboo around your period.
For many, these experiences will go hand in hand with being unable to afford period products – or ‘period poverty’.
Eunice, 15, from Uganda had no idea what was happening when she first started her period. "I thought I had been stabbed with a needle," she told us.
When she found blood on her clothes, she felt ashamed and was too afraid to go to school for fear others would laugh at her. Even when she knew what was happening, the cost of sanitary wear meant her mother sometimes gave her rags to use instead.
For many girls in the UK, this story will be all too familiar. At Plan International UK, our own research tells us that nearly half of UK girls are embarrassed by their periods, while more than a quarter didn’t know what to do when their period started. And once again, stigma lies at the heart of the story.
As 19-year-old Aoife told us, "I’ve had the words, ‘Dirty! It’s disgusting.' It’s a horrible way for a girl to feel when she’s on her period."
Regardless of where it happens, period stigma takes a major toll on girls’ lives. It impacts on their self-esteem and can lead to them missing out on school.
For those in the world’s poorest communities, it can mean dropping out of education completely, leaving them at greater risk of child marriage, early pregnancy and exploitation.
It’s clear that if we want girls around the world – including here in the UK – to reach their full potential, then we must tackle the taboos and prejudices that surround periods, recognising that this is both a cause and consequence of gender inequality.
Breaking the silence on periods
We were therefore pleased to hear of a new government campaign aimed at ‘breaking the silence’ and ending period poverty globally by 2030.
Announced last week by International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, the package includes £2million in new global funding to tackle period poverty and stigma and sets out plans for a new expert taskforce to help tackle period poverty here in the UK.
What’s especially welcome about the announcement is the intention not just to tackle access to products, but also the issues at the root of this problem.
In the UK, we call this the ‘toxic trio’, namely the high of cost period products, lack of education and the stigma and shame that surrounds periods. Often these factors act in concert, making it harder for girls to ask for information or products or to discuss their experiences with others.
Education is critical to solving this problem; because it’s only by learning and talking about periods that we can smash the idea that they’re a source of shame to be dealt with in secret, rather than a perfectly normal bodily process.
Learning without stigma or embarrasment
Wherever they are, girls need to be able to learn about their periods without stigma or embarrassment.
In the UK, we have a rare opportunity on this front: the new relationship and sex education curriculum due to come into effect next year will include education around periods. We need to make sure that what’s taught to girls genuinely reflects their needs and experiences.
Meanwhile, for Eunice in Uganda, education has also been critical. Fortunately, her mother was there to advise her when she needed it.
Now, as part of Plan International's work in the country, she is helping to address the social beliefs and stigmas surrounding menstruation by teaching other girls about period health and management. When the time comes, she will make sure that her nieces understand what is happening to them.
Unfortunately, for too many girls around the world – including here in the UK – this kind of support simply isn’t available. It’s high time that changed.
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